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Medford police clean up nuisance camp in west Medford

After a rash of crime- and drug-related issues allegedly caused by occupants of a large homeless camp behind the Albertsons store on West Main Street and Newbridge Place apartments in recent months, neighbors were breathing a hesitant sigh of relief as police and city crews rolled in with trailers and dumpsters last week for a multiday cleanup effort.

Tucked along Still Pond Street and an irrigation runoff area, the spot was an eyesore littered with tents, tarps, bike parts, soiled clothing, needles and trash.

The camp prompted regular calls to police, fire and medical stemming from late-night fights, break-in attempts, bicycle thefts and other issues.

Medford police and neighbors say the site has been used as a transient camp for years, but complaints increased after construction of Newbridge Place in 2019. Community Service Officer Nathan Twiss has spent time in recent weeks offering relocation assistance and resources to campers.

Heaving bags of garbage and a pair of bike frames onto a trailer Thursday afternoon, Twiss said police would “keep an eye” on the location to prevent the camp from reestablishing.

Twiss acknowledged frustrations with the campers, but he said COVID concerns had exacerbated an already overwhelming situation.

“We had the shelter-in-place (order) go into effect back in March — back when we all thought we’d be down for a month. With that still in effect, now we’re just trying to focus on trash cleanup,” Twiss said.

“We go out to a site the day in advance and offer resources, like the Kelly Shelter. Most people aren’t really taking advantage of that kind of thing right now because they know we can’t make them move.”

Newbridge residents Shannon Stotts and Rocky Welburn said they hoped that cleaning up the camp would bring at least a short break from incidents such as campers siphoning gas or breaking into cars, or neighbors being awakened by flashing police lights.

“Since we moved in last January, it was just total chaos all the time,” Welburn said.

“They don’t sleep when other people sleep, so there’s been a lot of drug activity and people messing around over here at the apartments.”

Welburn said that after the Alemda fire, much of the complex evacuated, but he and Stotts stayed behind, unable to leave due to health complications.

“Suddenly it was like that was open season to steal from people. It wasn’t two hours after most of the neighbors had evacuated, they were over here breaking into stuff and trying to get into windows. They came to our back door and started messing with it,” he said.

“I have a pistol with a light and a red dot. The flashlight doesn’t make much difference, but they’re smart enough to know what that red dot means.”

Neighbor Frances Threets said Finley Lane neighbors have watched campers venture between the Still Pond area and other camps for the past five years. Camp trailers show up regularly, Threets said, dumping sewage into runoff areas and attracting campers who roam the neighborhood “doing whatever they want.”

Threets said Albertsons, whose headquarters did not respond to an interview request from the Mail Tribune, cleared a heavily overgrown area behind the store after a stabbing in July.

“It’s like they have more rights than people who own properties. They have created a total neighborhood nuisance. Local businesses have been stolen from and vandalized. Some of the ones you see all the time, they go into Albertsons and steal and walk right out, and the store employees say they can’t do a thing about it,” Threets said.

“We all try to watch the mugshots, and we see familiar faces on there all the time. It’s how we are able to figure out the names of the ones terrorizing the neighborhood.”

Medford police Sgt. Geoff Kirkpatrick said camp issues were a focus for the department.

“We know it’s a very real issue, and we are working on it on a daily basis. We are trying to get ourselves in a position that is legally defensible and to follow what is ethically right and what is consistent with our current COVID pandemic,” said Kirkpatrick.

“The people who genuinely want assistance and are receptive to resources — our livability team officers are trying to help them through the barriers they’re facing. There is a large percentage of the population that simply does not want that. It was a much lower percentage when there was enforcement behind it.”

Kirkpatrick said police were focused on problem solving and thinking outside the box to help everyone in the community.

“People have an expectation a lot of the time, when they call and say, ‘Hey, this camp is there and it needs to be gone,’ that it will happen as soon as they call. We have to go through a lot of procedures and processes to do our job,” he said.

“We know it’s a very real issue and we are working on it on a daily basis.”

Welburn said he was grateful for police efforts to clear the nuisance camp.

“We’ve been looking to move because in the summertime it will get really, really bad again,” he said.

“But I know they’re out there all the time trying to deal with it. They really did a good job getting this thing cleared out. It’s been a huge problem for a long time and they really cleaned house on it this time.”

Reach freelance writer Buffy Pollock at buffyp76@yahoo.com.

Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Medford police Community Service Officer Nathan Twiss helps to remove a homeless camp near the West Main Albertsons in Medford on Wednesday.